Person looking at vaccine card
Third-grade teacher Marvin Reed gets the COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021. All Berkeley teachers and staff will be required to get the vaccine or weekly tests this fall. Credit: Kelly Sullivan Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As of Sept. 3, the Berkeley school district will start requiring all teachers and staff to either get tested for COVID-19 weekly or present proof of vaccination — about six weeks before public and private school employees must comply with a similar statewide public health order announced Wednesday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The school board made the decision at its Wednesday evening board meeting after weeks of planning.

“Thanks to our staff’s aggressive work on this ahead of time, we’re in a position to do it sooner than the state is mandating,” said Ty Alper, school board president.

The district plans to offer COVID-19 testing on Aug. 23 and verify employee vaccination status by Aug. 27. Superintendent Brent Stephens said the district should be able to report staff vaccination rates by the end of August.

“We know that vaccinations are a key line of defense against the virus,” said Matt Meyer, president of Berkeley’s teachers union in a recorded message during Wednesday night’s school board meeting. “BFT requested that the district put in mandatory vaccinations or mandatory frequent testing of unvaccinated adults before there was a state mandate.”

The school board fell short of implementing testing requirements for students, citing legal reasons.

Superintendent Brent Stephens said increasing student testing was a priority because only about a third of students got tested when campuses reopened in the spring.

“We understand that, particularly with the delta variant, increasing the rate is a really pivotal part of our mitigation strategy,” Stephens said.

But Stephens said the district ultimately could not require students to get tested because it could not exclude students for refusing to get a test. Also, the district’s testing company will not test minors without parental consent.

“We know, for now, that we have to rule out the question of mandated student tests,” he said.

The Los Angeles school district announced July 29 that all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status, would have to get tested weekly for COVID-19. Parents who don’t want their kids to be tested can opt for independent study, the district reasoned.

Instead of making student testing mandatory, the Berkeley school district is trying to remove barriers to getting tested. “We’ve been working to to figure out what other ways we might be able to maximize participation in testing,” Stephens said.

Berkeley Unified will offer PCR surveillance testing on campus every other week. COVID-19 tests were always free of charge, but now they will no longer require proof of insurance. Parents will also only need to fill out one “blanket” consent form, rather than signing a consent form for every COVID-19 test. The school board hopes these changes will make it easier for students to get tested.

The school board considered offering surveillance testing on a weekly or even more regular basis, rather than every two weeks, but decided to determine the cost of such a testing program before deciding on the frequency. School Board Director Julia Sinai said she supports increasing the frequency of testing to twice a week “if there’s the resources and the staff capacity to do it.”

Stephens said the district continues to explore making testing opt-out, rather than having students opt in to get a test.

The vast majority of eligible Berkeley teens have received both doses of the vaccine: 85% of Berkeley residents between 12 and 17 years old are fully vaccinated, according to City of Berkeley data. But children under 12 remain ineligible for the shot, leaving some parents worried about the risks of returning to school.

Associate Superintendent Rubén Aurelio detailed the district’s independent study model for those who want or need to keep their kids home. Parents can enroll their kids in one of the district’s three independent study programs on a rolling basis. The district has not released enrollment data for the programs yet.

Berkeley students will return to school Monday, Aug. 16.

Read about Berkeley Unified’s plan to keep students safe from COVID-19 in Berkeleyside, and check out the district’s full safety plan. (The plan has not been updated to reflect new vaccine-or-test requirements for staff).

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...